When students come back to Saint Joseph's College of Maine this fall, there's a chance that Luke Chouinard will be among them. There's no chance that John Queenan will be returning, although the two arrived as freshmen at the same time, in August 2003.
One night shortly after they arrived, they went out for a drive with a third friend. According to authorities, Chouinard was driving 80 miles per hour -- twice the speed limit for the road they were on. He lost control of the car and the resulting crash killed Queenan and seriously injured Kyle Rennick, the third student. Chouinard walked away from the crash with minor bruises, but was later convicted of manslaughter for his reckless driving. He's about to be released from jail and Queenan's parents and Rennick don't want him back at Saint Joseph's.
Queenan's parents wrote to the college to ask that Chouinard not be allowed to return and that the college instead find another institution for him to attend. The college wrote back that Chouinard was welcome back. And that has prompted the Queenans to start talking about the issue, and about why they think it would be better for all concerned if Chouinard didn't return to Saint Joseph's.
John F. Queenan, the father, said that until he heard recently that the college was planning to allow Chouinard back, he had "no ill feelings" for Saint Joseph's. He remembers the kindness and compassion of administrators after his son was killed. But he was stunned when he heard Chouinard was welcome to return.
"I asked the college to take the unique opportunity they had to send a message to students and young people in the area that this kind of reckless behavior should not be tolerated. By not allowing him to come back to the school, that would be a strong message," Queenan said.
He added that his request was not about vengeance, and that he hopes Chouinard can find an appropriate place to continue his education. But he said that his son's friends, including Rennick, shouldn't have to run into Chouinard on campus. (Saint Joseph's has an undergraduate enrollment of about 1,000 and is the kind of place where everyone runs into everyone.)
College officials responded, Queenan said, by telling him that since the accident took place off the campus, it was appropriate that Maine, not the college, punish Chouinard. The matter-of-fact analysis bothered Queenan even more than the decision.
"I brought my son to your school. He was living in your dorm. I put him in your care," is what he wants the college to understand.
Rennick, the other student in the car, suffered from a broken jaw in two places, torn ligaments, knee injuries that required a knee replacement and numerous lacerations. He was on crutches for months. He is functioning independently now, and excited about his junior year at Saint Joseph's, but says flatly of Chouinard: "I don't want to see him again. It's just going to make it harder for everybody."
Chouinard's lawyer, who did not return calls, told local reporters that his client grieves for his dead friend and feels terrible about what happened. But Rennick isn't buying it. "If he really is so worried and grieving, then why would he come back?"
William McCarthy, a spokesman for Saint Joseph's, called the 2003 accident "a tremendous tragedy for everyone." But he said that the college decided from the start to try to comfort Queenan's family and friends -- and to "let the legal proceedings run their course."
Now that Chouinard is about to be released from jail, McCarthy said that the college needed to consider whether he posed a risk to the safety of any other students, and that there is no evidence that he would. McCarthy acknowledged that Rennick and some of Queenan's friends may not want Chouinard on campus. But, he added, "I think we're a strong enough institution that we can help all of them."
Many colleges have to deal with issues of whether to let a student return to campus after jail time or another punishment for a crime. Security on Campus is a group that has frequently criticized colleges for letting people who have been convicted of sexual assaults return to the institutions where they committed their crimes.
But Catherine C. Bath, executive director of the group, said that as long as the accident didn't involve drugs or alcohol (it didn't), she thinks Saint Joseph's is doing the right thing. She recalled an incident when she was 16 or 17 and drove far above the speed limit on a country road, and at one point had to slam on the breaks. She didn't have any passengers and no one was hurt, "but someone could have been," she said.
"So many of us have done incredibly stupid things," she said, noting research that suggests that the teenage brain is not fully developed. "This is a really tough one, but my gut tells me to let him back in," she said. "I'd have to think about how I'd feel if I was the mother of the child who was buried, but, at some point, life goes on."